Will US foreign policy push Houthis closer to Iran?

Khalid Al Jaber

There are tentative moves towards peace in Yemen, however, American attempts to designate the Houthi armed wing as a terrorist organisation could complicate the conflict. Earlier this month, as Houthi rebels and forces loyal to Yemen’s President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, intensified their fighting against the backdrop of delays in the UN’s planned peace talks, reports emerged that the Trump administration is considering designating the Houthis’ dominant militia—Ansurallah—a terrorist organization. This idea is not new.

In 2016, Barack Obama’s administration also considered making this designation after US Navy ships close to Houthi-controlled parts of Yemen came under cruise-missile attacks. Other attacks on Saudi and Emirati vessels transiting waters near Yemen’s shores have been attributed to Ansurallah and used to construct arguments in favour of designating the faction a terrorist entity. Nonetheless, so far the US government has decided not to make this designation. But there’s a greater chance of that changing with Trump in the Oval Office.

The US president might support this move, thinking that it could pressure the Houthis into capitulating to demands from the US and its Gulf allies just before the next round of planned peace talks.  In the regional context, the administration’s consideration of this designation pertains to plans for pushing back against Iran’s “terror” proxies throughout the Middle East.

Having pulled the US out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) earlier this year and applying “maximum pressure” against Iran’s ballistic missile and nuclear programs, plus Tehran’s regional conduct, the White House shares Saudi Arabia’s determination to thwart the Iranians from making further geopolitical gains in Arab states such as Yemen.  The US administration is under pressure from lawmakers to take actions that hold the Saudi state accountable for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi on October 2, especially after the CIA said that it was highly unlikely that MBS would not have known about the journalist’s killing.

Beyond the symbolism of showing support for the Saudi narrative about Iran’s malign conduct in Yemen, how would the State Department designating Ansurallah a terrorist organization impact the realities on the ground Yemen? The war-torn country’s civilians, rather than Houthi militants, would lose most from such a designation. Such a move would have major implications for humanitarian groups that coordinate with the armed Houthis to provide civilians with relief. Aid organizations would be required to acquire licenses from the US government prior to continuing their work in Yemeni lands controlled by Houthi rebels.

As millions in the country already lack the means to access food and medicine while the fighting has unleashed immense suffering with roughly half the population facing pre-famine conditions, humanitarian organizations warn that such a designation could exacerbate the death, disease, and hunger in Yemen. Given how much land in Yemen is under Ansurallah’s control, the Iranian-backed group is certainly in a position to keep on fighting until its adversaries begin to make concessions. To be sure, the Trump administration designating the Houthis’ main militia a terrorist group would undoubtedly serve to derail already fragile diplomatic initiatives to resolve the conflict.  This is a concern that an Omani official recently expressed, underscoring Muscat’s unease with the fundamental aspects of the current White House’s overall approach to countering Iran’s ascendancy.

For the US to work with its allies and bring all the major actors in Yemen to a durable cease-fire followed by peace talks, the US should continue to build on its diplomatic engagement with Ansurallah and explore possible avenues for creating a greater wedge between the Houthis and Tehran that can bring the Yemeni minority group back to the Arabian fold, away from the Iranians.

For all of the Houthis’ crimes against unarmed civilians, violations of international law, and other actions by Ansurallah, which have created legitimate grievances among many non-Houthi Yemenis, the militia’s members and supporters must be accepted as a political movement that should share power in a post-conflict government that comes to power through a democratic process.

This is essential for resolving the Yemeni conflict. A positive sign came in September when Hadi’s foreign minister expressed his government’s willingness to recognize Ansurallah as such. Yet despite being Yemen’s internationally-recognised government, the administration of Hadi has relatively little influence on the ground in the country and takes orders from Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, which have for a long time refused to accept the Houthis as an integral part of Yemen that deserves representation in the country.

In the final analysis, while the Trump administration sees Yemen as an important battleground in the fight against Iran’s ascendancy, the US designating the main Houthi militia a terror group would likely only push Ansurallah closer to the Islamic Republic’s orbit of influence. To be sure, Iranian clout in Yemen is a reality as Tehran maintains undeniable links with the Houthis and exercises influence over Ansurallah.

But that influence is frequently exaggerated by government officials and analysts alike who mistakenly find Ansurallah’s ties with Tehran to be essentially the same as those between Lebanese Hezbollah and Iran’s regime.  Ansurallah is the militia fighting on behalf of the most impoverished community in the Arab world’s most impoverished country.

The group would likely accept arms from any actor willing to provide them such weaponry, and just because Iran has chosen to do so does not alone demonstrate that Ansurallah functions as an Iranian “proxy”. Instead, the militia is much more of a tactical partner of Tehran that operates with more autonomy from Iran’s government than many pundits accept. Yet in the final analysis, if the US administration pushes for isolating the Houthis until they fully sever all ties with Iran and accept other demands from Washington, Riyadh, and Abu Dhabi, it would only be logical to expect Ansurallah to move even closer to Tehran.

Throughout the Arabian Peninsula and Levant this trend is common whereby the US and/or its Arabian Gulf allies act against certain states (Syria in 2011, Qatar in 2017, and Iraq after 2003) or indigenous groups (Bahrain and Saudi Arabia’s Shia communities) to later see such confrontational approaches pushing these Arab state/non-state actors closer to Iran. Doubtless, this dynamic is also in play in Yemen. Hopes for bringing the Houthis back to the Arabian fold and away from Iran would become even more unimaginable in the near- to medium-term if Washington were to take such measures against Ansurallah.  Unquestionably, Tehran officials would welcome such a designation from the US government, realizing that the move would advance Iran’s interests far more than those of the United States.

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